What is the origin of picnic?

My research states that picnic comes from the French word Pique-nique and became common in the mid 18th century. It also states that the French word Pique-nique has an unknown origin making picnic have an unknown origin.


noun: picnic; plural noun: picnics

an outing or occasion that involves taking a packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
synonyms: outdoor meal, al fresco meal, cookout, barbecue

"a picnic on the beach"

a packed meal taken on an outing and eaten outdoors.


verb: picnic; 3rd person present: picnics; past tense: picnicked; past participle: picnicked; gerund or present participle: picnicking

have or take part in a picnic.


mid 18th century: from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.


  • 1
    Littre states the origin of pique-nique as not French but English littre.org/definition/pique-nique
    – Elian
    Oct 1, 2015 at 16:33
  • 1
    The full (subscription-only) OED says French pique-nique (1694 in repas à piquenique ; 1718 denoting a meal at which each person pays for his share or at which each person contributes a share of the food; subsequently also denoting a meal eaten out of doors, perhaps after English), probably < piquer (see pick v.1) + nique (14th or 15th cent. in Middle French in sense ‘nothing whatever’, second half of the 15th cent. in sense ‘small copper coin’; probably ultimately of imitative origin) Apparently not directly related to nix = nothing [at all]. Oct 1, 2015 at 16:49
  • 1
    The world "pique-nique" would have been introduced in France at the beginning of 18th century. The expression « faire un repas à pique-nique » (to have a meal with picnic) was used in the popular speech. The word “pique” would come from the verb "piquer", in the sense of to peck, inspired of the hens which peck seeds. And “nique” would indicate a small thing without value. The juxtaposition of these two terms refers to the fact of pecking small dishes, brought by each one, for a convivial meal in outside.
    – Graffito
    Oct 1, 2015 at 16:51
  • Littré (dictionary author around 1870) refers to an English origin from the words "pick" (to seize) and "nick" (nothing;instant ?).
    – Graffito
    Oct 1, 2015 at 16:54
  • 1
    Is there any one who would try answering as an answer other than a comment?
    – anonymous
    Oct 1, 2015 at 17:10

1 Answer 1


Etymonline traces its origin both as a noun and as a verb which actually confirm those in the comments:

Picnic (v.):

  • "go on a picnic," 1842, from picnic (n.). Related: Picnicked; picnicking. The -k- is inserted to preserve the "k" sound of -c- before a suffix beginning in -i-, -y-, or -e- (compare traffic/trafficking, panic/panicky)

Picnic (n.):

  • 1748 (in Chesterfield's "Letters"), but rare before c. 1800 as an English institution; originally a fashionable pot-luck social affair, not necessarily out of doors; from French piquenique (1690s), perhaps a reduplication of piquer "to pick, peck," from Old French (see pike (n.2) ), or the second element may be nique "worthless thing," from a Germanic source. Figurative sense of "something easy" is from 1886. Picnic table recorded from 1926, originally a folding table.

World Wide Word offers the two recent theories on its origin related to 'slavery' which actually are not supported by reliable evidence. Its French origin appear to be the more accepted one:


  • Picnic was a shortening of pick a nigger and referred to an outdoor community gathering during which families ate from box lunches while a randomly-chosen black man was hanged for the diners’ entertainment.

  • The word was originally derived from the term pick-a-nig. Pick-a-nig was a gathering for slave traders and their families back in the 17th/18th centuries. They would get together after slave trading and have a big party, called pick-a-nig.

    • Though there’s no truth in these stories from an etymological viewpoint, it is very understandable how the first of these arose. Some of the historic photographs of lynchings show families with picnic baskets. This is evidence enough that a lynching was often a social occasion, but if you need further proof, you have only to investigate how often the phrase lynching bee turns up in contemporary descriptions of such events. However, there is no evidence at all for the second story.
  • Picnic is originally a French word, picque-nique, which first appeared at the end of the seventeenth century. It later spread to Germany and other countries, but didn’t become widely known in English until after 1800. It referred to a fashionable type of social entertainment in which each person who attended brought a share of the food.

    • The first part may be from the French piquer, from which we get pick. The nique part may just have been a reiteration (as in English words like hoity-toity), but could have echoed an obsolete word meaning “a trifle” (so the term could have meant something like “each pick a bit”). The association with an outdoor meal didn’t appear in English until about the middle of the nineteenth century. So there’s no truth in stories that attempt to link the origins of the words with slavery.

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